A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 2.19.21

We discussed in our Thursday morning class this week the interesting and strange “interruption” in the Sinai narrative that parashat Terumah represents. We are now firmly in the middle of the book of Exodus. Up to now, we have read the well-known and gripping stories of the enslavement of the Israelites by Pharaoh, the birth and early years of Moses, the ten plagues, and the splitting of the sea. Two weeks ago, we read the extraordinary story of the revelation at Sinai and the uttering of the Ten Commandments, and last week, we read the “Book of the Covenant,” the further giving of another 53 mitzvot. At the end of last week’s reading, God calls Moshe up onto the mountain to give him “the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” The last line of the parasha says, “Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”

In terms of the narrative, we all know what happens next: after forty days, Moses descends the mountain only to find that the Israelites have built a golden calf. Enraged, he smashes the tablets, the people are punished, and Moses pleads (somewhat successfully) with God not to destroy them.

That part of the story, however, doesn’t come for another couple of weeks. The story is interrupted (for the next two and a half parshiyot/Torah portions) with a set of not-very-gripping instructions that God delivers to Moses on how to construct the mishkan (Tabernacle, or literally, the “dwelling place”) and its furnishings, and how to make the garments that the priests are to wear when engaged in their sacerdotal duties.

Naturally, this begs the question, why? Why break the flow of the story, particularly given that, as many commentators have noted, the sanctuary may have been a kind of “kosher” stand-in for the golden calf: once God understood that the people needed some kind of physical manifestation of the divine, the Tabernacle was the sanctioned alternative to the idol that the Israelites had constructed. So why not save the not-so-interesting blueprints for after the golden calf story?

It’s hard to answer that question directly. Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that there is precedent in ancient Near Eastern texts for the “enthroning” of a deity “in a house of his or her own.” But that’s not a very satisfying explanation. Far more interesting, Plaut offers, is the position of the early 20th century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. For Rosenzweig, the construction of the Tabernacle is the climax – “the goal and the pinnacle” – of the entire Torah: “…In Egyptian slavery Israel had made buildings for the pharaohs, now they were privileged to expend their labor for God’s sake. This more than anything else concretized their freedom. For even as God “made” the world, so Israel now “makes” the sanctuary in a new act of creation…” (Plaut, 543). And indeed, much of the language of the Tabernacle instructions echoes the language of the creation story, suggesting a strong link between these two events. It suggests that God’s perfect creation in Genesis can be re-created, that what was can be again, though it won’t be the same. It’s a beautiful idea: a new beginning, pregnant with possibility.

Bible commentator Umberto Cassouto, Rozensweig’s Italian contemporary, offers another explanation:

In order to understand the significance and purpose of the tabernacle, we must realize that the Children of Israel, after they have been privileged to witness the revelation of God on Mount Sinai, were about to journey from there and thus draw away from the site of the theophany. So long as they were in encamped in the place, they were conscious of God’s nearness, but, once they set out on their journey, it seemed to them as though the link had been broken, unless there were in their midst a tangible symbol of God’s presence among them. It was the function of the tabernacle to serve as such a symbol. (Plaut, 543)

In Cassouto’s understanding, the magisterial pronouncement on Mount Sinai, complete with “thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn,” with Mount Sinai “all in smoke,” with the smoke rising “like the smoke of a kiln,” and “the whole mountain [trembling] violently” (19:16, 18) – all this grandeur and terror and awe is bottled, tamed, contained, in the mishkan/Tabernacle. The presence of God is still felt, but the awesome and dreadful freneticism of the revelation is literally domesticated in the introduction of a “dwelling place” for Adonai. And as with the Genesis comparison, so too do we find much of the language of revelation echoed in the instructions for the Tabernacle.

Here I change gears for a moment, my own nod to the Torah portion.

At the conclusion of last week’s Shabbat service, I made some remarks that I would like to revisit briefly in the hope of reaching a wider audence. I reminded those in attendance that we were nearly a year in to our COVID lives. News reported this week suggests that it may be nearly another year before we can resume our “normal” lives again. I reminded people, as I had been reminded by a moving article that I had read, that the pandemic is silently (and sometimes not so silently) pressing on us. Our mental health is being tried; we are constantly calculating the losses – loss of life, loss of life-style, loss of interaction – and the emotions that we are feeling can be overpowering. I urged people to be especially kind to themselves, first of all, and to others too (“Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others”). If you have children, show a little extra forbearance. If you have aging parents, be more patient than usual. Your spouse or partner or roommates are having their own sets of reactions, so they too need the space to experience their own emotions. If you are overwhelmed by the difficulty and the stress and the anxiety of what we are living through, you are not alone! Feel your feelings, make the extra effort to be kind and patient and generous, and when you need to, cry, or be sad, or feel lonely. It’s ok.

The relative grandness of our former lives has been reduced, confined, domesticated, by COVID. But the spark remains, and we still have access to what is fine and noble inside of us. If there was ever a time to reach out for that within ourselves and to model it for others, now is that time. With another long haul ahead of us, now is also the time to consider what re-creation means for us, in our lives as we are now living them and as we begin to emerge from this trying and difficult time.

Why do we read about the mishkan here, at this point in the story? I can’t be sure. But a bedrock principle of classical Bible interpretation is that the Bible speaks to us in our own time. Maybe it’s saying: Hang in there.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat, filled with kindness and patience and generosity and love.

Rabbi Sam Levine